As an artist, my job is to notice things, including things about my art. I do my photo series, Through the Windshield, and I’ve been noticing themes in what I choose to photograph. This is useful. (Apparently, I like to photograph ghost signs, rusty things, silos in need of paint, shadows of trees on buildings, and images shot through windows, windows belonging to both cars and building.)
Recently, I noticed the recurring theme of quilts in my art. I collect orphaned quilt squares and use those in my mixed media collage paintings, in fact I just noticed that nearly all of my paintings include at least one piece of fabric, quilt or otherwise.
What do quilts mean to me? What do they symbolize?
I’m not completely sure, but let’s look at previous art works that include quilts. We’ll go in chronological order.
While I’ve always sewn, I had never made a quilt until my brother Joe died. Together, my mom and I made a quilt out of his clothes, for his kids and his wife.
I was the crazy one who told his kids, “I’m going to make you a quilt out of your dad’s clothes.”
I think I’ve posted elsewhere in more detail about that process. In brief, I cut the first 60 or so fabric squares, on the advice of a professional quilter that I kind of knew through a friend. Then my mom came back in town and I handed the project off to her. She cut more pieces and did the rest. It’s gorgeous and it’s been a wonderful thing to own for my sister in law and the kids. It’s not my place to talk about what it means to them, suffice to say that I think it’s been important.
Joe died during what we called “the time of death,” when 8 people died, including our daughter, in 15 months. The cat died too.
My mother in law is an avid quilter, so of course she made quilts for our daughter, Sophia. The NICU, where Sophia began her life, has this lovely program where quilters and sewers donate blankets and quilts. You get to take a tiny blanket home every day or so. No baby, just a blanket to hold.
One of the little quilts – they’re so tiny – had a cat pattern to the quilting stitches. We were so stressed out that it took us ages to notice. Ages.
After Sophia died, I asked friends to contribute quilt squares and my mother in law made a lovely memorial quilt. It’s not something I look at every day, but I’m glad to own it.
I seem to have developed this idea that quilts are a place for memories. At our house, they’re also very much for using every day, thanks to the beautiful work that my mother in law does. Every bed has 3 or more quilts!
This makes sense, this idea I have, that quilts are for memories, since there’s a long history in this country of album quilts, where friends would each make a square, perhaps for a friend who was moving West, who you would never see again.
And there’s a long history of quilts made from scraps and clothes. One of the bed quilts my mother in law made us is made with scraps from all the other quilts she’s made us, plus some for other grandkids. My kids love to look at that and find the fabrics they recognize. “Look! This one’s my baby quilt!”
Next up, my Girl Scout troop that I lead took on what became an enormous project. I didn’t mean for it to be so big, but under the guidance of our quilting expert volunteer, the project, and the quilts grew to be larger and more beautiful than we had planned.
Eight girls made 7 twin sized quilt tops for children in a residential home for foster children. Two girls did the finishing work on the quilt: quilting stitching and binding. The other girls handed off their tops to wonderful adult volunteers, who did the finishing and binding.
Then, the adults were so inspired by the girls, they made an additional 23 (or so, I began to lose count) quilts to donate!
Here’s a picture of the girls at our first “drop off day,” where they took the first batch of quilts and presented them to the residential home staff.
(Want to see the quilts? The girls created a website to teach others how to replicate the project, you can see it at http://quilts4kids.wordpress.com )
Not being a fiber artist, this was new to me, the power of making something magic out of fabric and giving it away. It was powerful for the girls, to work SO hard, to learn to sew and make something, just to give it away to someone who needed it more than they did.
My background is in jewelry making and metalsmithing. Maybe because our raw materials are more expensive, we don’t seem to give things away in the same way that fiber artists do. This was interesting, to be a part of that world.
There’s another theme, every time I’ve been involved in quilt making, it’s to give it away, or it’s given to me.
The only other quilts I’ve made are dolly quilts.
That’s how I got into quilt making. Then the quilts started working their way into my art, at first in El Dia de los Muertos alters that were exhibited at the Indianapolis Art Center (IAC).
The first one, I made for my brother, Joe. IAC does this annual show and it’s indoors and outdoors. For Joe, I made an outdoor piece that’s inside of a painted wooden box. It was exhibited mounted on a pole, with an acrylic front to it. Here are some pictures of it that were taken before the acrylic front was added.
That was in 2006. The next year I was able to make an alter for Sophia. My friend who was in town and saw the show at IAC said that people crossed the gallery to avoid looking at this piece.
The year after that (I think it was the year after that) I made a much smaller shrine for Sophia, I call it a pocket shrine, something that you can put away, like mourning that makes progress, and you can put it away for a while.
It was exhibited with this quilt fragment. I set out to make a quilt of her clothes but just couldn’t do it. It was just too hard. Too painful. This little fragment is all there is.
Three Day of the Dead alters, three quilts.
Then in 2011, I started doing mixed media collage paintings. (Why? that’s a subject for another post, already written, see “Why I Started Painting,” for a guess on the matter.)
Here are some, with fabric bits:
Having worked with quilts now since about 2001, I started to wonder why, what do they symbolize?
A big theme in my artwork is forms, idioms, vehicles for ideas. My Day of the Dead alters are part of a traditional form that celebrates a life.
My “Medals That You Wouldn’t Want to Earn,” use medals as an idiom to express ideas, through this form that you know, you recognize, only it’s kind of the opposite of a usual medal, since it’s for an injury or suffering.
Come to think of it, there are medals for that. Military medals such as the Purple Heart.
My “Our Ladies of Perpetual Housework,” use another form, the household, roadside or front yard shrine. But as usual, it’s not straight up, I’m using that form to say what I want to say.
With the “Our Ladies,” I’m both elevating and complaining. (That’s kind of my thing.) I want you to notice the invisible housework that I do, that other moms do. And I also want to protest my having to do it, the unpaid labor of women that runs the world.
The silver leafing is to elevate and monumentalize. Much, much more has been written about the whys behind the Our Ladies. See a previous blog post for links to the many interviews and profiles about me and that series. They’ve really struck a chord with people.
No quilts in either of those series. (But that gives me an idea…)
That brings us to today, to my newest project, Motherhood, the Crazy Quilt: Love Ya Like Crazy/Driving Me Crazy. It’s a public participation art project where moms make quilt pieces and I’ll put them together in collage paintings and an actual quilt.
This is a project that has been incubating since at least 2011, when I first applied for a grant to fund some workshops with an art therapist to facilitate moms making quilt pieces (not squares, since crazy quilts are made of irregular pieces).
That project turned out to not be a good fit for that foundation, not weird enough for them. Instead, they funded a conceptual hot dog stand. For reals, a conceptual hot dog stand. No, I don’t know what that is either. But I got it, that foundation = not a good fit for my work.
This year I applied for another grant and didn’t get that one either. Putting so much energy into writing the grant takes away energy from doing the project. I’d write a grant, get excited, wait, get turned down. By then, I’d moved on to something else.
Okay, I decided, I’m just going to do this. With the support of Zenith Art Studios, a new art center, providing the space, I decided to just dive in and do it.
If there was a theme at the most recent One State Together in the Arts Conference, it was Just Do It! Audience members asked speakers again and again, “how did you get started?” “How did you fund your project?” and “How did you get permission?”
Artist after artist said, “I just started. I didn’t wait, I just found a way.”
I’ve just started, and I’d love it if you were a part of this next quilt project. You can read all about it and how to participate, here: http://www.elainelutherart.com/gallery/motherhood-the-crazy-quilt
I referenced other blog posts, you can find more posts where I write about my artwork on All Things Metal Clay, where I’ve been blogging since 2007. They’re in this category: http://creativetexturetools.com/news/category/my-jewelrymy-studio